Here in the year 2018, half a life since an auspicious March cameo of 1986, Huggins marches on, to the Big 12 tournament final opposite Kansas in this case, as both a fantastic basketball coach and a human test case. He’s possibly the leading example in sports at the moment of how time slowly comes to flatter brusqueness. In a coach’s early years, a little (or more) brusqueness might seem distasteful, especially to a goody-goody.
Years pass, and it whittles its way into a charm, especially when the subject isn’t aiming for charm, but simply carries along an authenticity.
So when somebody asked Huggins, American authentic, how his West Virginia team might alter the previous two outcomes this season against Kansas come Saturday, Huggins’ answer served as funny in its spareness. With mild exasperation but not rudeness, he began piling small sentences atop each other: “Score more points than them. I don’t know. We have played pretty well. They have played pretty well. It’s been two pretty well-played games. I don’t know. Make another shot, maybe. Get a free throw. Something.”
It got a few giggles, not that he cared either way. It didn’t match last year here, when he said a line that sounded better from him than it would from anyone else: “You know, I’ve always thought that if you go miss two free throws, I’d just as soon they punt it up in the bleachers.” Or when somebody asked one night how his team had won while shooting 26.7 percent, and Huggins leaned into the microphone and barked a sole, wry word:
Climb back through the catacombs of NCAA tournament brackets of yore and you might run across a curious morsel from March 14, 1986: No. 2 seed Michigan 70, No. 15 seed Akron 64. On that Friday, the debutant Zips had treated the Wolverines to unexpected hyperventilation. They had stared at their considerable height disadvantage and won the rebounding stat, 34-28.
Their forward, Russell Holmes, had said in the Chicago Tribune, “After a while, they started to look like just another team.” Their 32-year-old coach had said to reporters: “Our guys run this way for three-and-a-half hours on our first few weeks of practice. After that, they think doing it for 40 minutes every game is a break.”
Spin back ahead to Friday night in the Sprint Center, ask West Virginia guard James Bolden to describe another of Huggins’ pressuring, harassing, scrambling, energetic teams, and hear him say: “We’re the hardest-working team in the nation. I believe that, and it shows out there every given night.”
The same head coach, then 32, now 64, applies to both teams, and as Huggins’ 24-9 team squeezed past Texas Tech, 66-63, on Friday night in a semifinal, it’s probably indicative of that old Huggins quotation from 1986 that the losing coach found bafflement in the box score. Said Chris Beard, whose second Texas Tech team stands also 24-9 and heads also for further March, “We make more field goals, we out-rebound them, we have a low-turnover game against their press on a one-day prep, but we don’t win the game.” He added of West Virginia guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., who shot 9-for-16 from three-point range, “They shoot like that, they’ll walk to the Sweet 16.”
If so, that would be Huggins’ ninth such walk, and third in the last four years, with his 24th NCAA tournament team at three places: Akron, Cincinnati and West Virginia.
So afterward Friday, he sat on a locker-room bench, alone and unassuming, for he does not preen, and answering a question about playing Kansas again by saying, in few words, “Got to play somebody, right?”
Asked another question while being called off to a TV interview, he said, “Walk with me.”
Asked about whether he always has a keen feel for his teams by the time March arrives, or whether things still evolve, he said, “You think you do, but then a lot of times you don’t, but you think you do.”
Asked about how much this particular team looks the way he wants a team to look, he said: “They’re really good. They’re extremely well-coached. They’re hard to play against.”
That middle sentence is a gem, and he didn’t even have to wink to produce it.
“Very versatile,” Carter described this team, in the season in which he became the first major-college player to register the impossible career statistical combination of 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals. “Can do a lot of different things. We can play fast. We can play slow. We can guard. We can score. Just very versatile . . . I don’t know. It’s my senior year. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve been in a lot of different situations. And I feel like I know how to respond.”
“I would describe it in one word: hard,” big man Sagaba Konate said. “We play hard. We have the best guard in the country. We couldn’t ask for anything (more). We play harder than anybody in the country, so that’s what we do.”
“Because we know how much time we put in, how much hard work we put in, in the gym,” Bolden said. “We practice even on our own. So it’ll mean a lot to us to go out there and try to get this one for the state of West Virginia.”
Asked earlier about another coming matchup with Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham of Kansas, Carter had sat next to Huggins and bristled and said: “It ain’t about that. It is West Virginia versus Kansas tomorrow. It is five guys on that court at one time. I hate when y’all try to make it a one-on-one matchup. It’s never about that.”
Next door, Huggins didn’t seem even to notice, which in its own way was funny and real. He just stared straight ahead at a box score as he has forever, searching for clues but knowing not all of them are there.